THE Times, now a tacky tabloid, has taken to emulating Antipodean journals by writing off the touring cricketers. It might be tongue-in-cheek, but winding up the Australians is a dangerous game.

By asking "Is this the worst Australian touring side ever?" the Times is taking the mickey out of the Aussie press more than the cricketers. But will Ricky Ponting's men see it that way?

Most Aussies insist they hate losing with a passion, but their confidence will not have been dented by their two defeats this week. Two of their batsmen retired at Taunton, while their Twenty20 capitulation could be put down largely to their inexperience in this new form of the game.

But their inability to defend a total of 342 against Somerset has given us cause for optimism, although the addition of Shane Warne will bring a different dimension to their attack for the Test series.

England must hope to bat first more often than not and make enough runs to put the Australians under pressure, as they did in the Twenty20 match. It will certainly happen the other way round when Ponting wins the toss because the Australian batting strength is frightening.

It still baffles me how Mike Hussey gets into their one-day side but is not in the Test squad as he is more of an accumulator than a dasher. But what a player to have in reserve.

England's equivalent is Paul Collingwood, who has been in awe of Hussey at Durham this season, but it could well be that the Shotley Bridge lad's two Test caps are two more than Hussey will earn.

THE ludicrous expense of taking 45 Lions to New Zealand, not to mention the scandalous size of the back-up squad, continues to hamper rather than enhance preparations for the Test series. Having evidently decided to make sure everyone gets at least one match, Sir Clive Woodward is taking too long to decide his first-choice line-up and allow them to gel.

Jonny Wilkinson desperately needs match practice but has had one game, during which he was shunted out to inside centre. If Woodward intends to play him in the first Test tomorrow week he surely cannot play him next Wednesday, so Jonny will barely have had the chance to shake off the rust of his long lay-off.

The fact that he was moved to No 12 is indicative of Woodward's uncertainty. Before missing the Six Nations, it was generally assumed Gordon D'Arcy would partner Brian O'Driscoll in the centre, then when Gavin Henson theatrically crunched young Matthew Tait and kicked the winning penalty against England he suddenly became favourite.

But I can't say I've seen Charlotte Church's fake-tanned boyfriend do anything especially creative with ball in hand, so inside centre is suddenly an area for concern. Jonny has played there before, and if needs must he could do the job. But he ought to have had more opportunity to get used to it.

SOMEONE who claims to make a lot of money out of betting on golf tells me Phil Mickelson will win the US Open, Tiger Woods is a certainty for our Open and a good each-way bet at St Andrews is Brian Davis.

This is a horses for courses assessment, and apparently Davis has done well at the home of golf in the past, but I will reserve my own judgement on the tipster's merit until we see how Mickelson performs at Pinehurst this week.

He was in the group, along with Woods and Vijay Singh, denied by the late Payne Stewart's 18-foot winning putt at this course six years ago, so Pinehurst obviously brings the cream to the top.

So we can also expect Ernie Els and Retief Goosen to be in the mix this week, but as we await the first European winner since Tony Jacklin in 1973 it will be interesting to see whether Luke Donald can string together four good rounds in this company.

Tiger at his best, of course, will win, and if that happens the Grand Slam talk will move into overdrive.

JUST when we thought it was safe to tiptoe back into the heavyweight boxing ring, with the cannibal Tyson surely having to find other ways to pay off his debts, we discover that Audley is alive and well.

At 33, you would hardly think he could afford to take a year off between bouts in what he insists is his inexorable rise to the summit, but he emerged to beat the little-known Robert Davis in the seventh round in California.

Audley has had a torn finger ligament, in addition to suffering from an over-inflated ego and misplaced resentment over the collapse of his relationship with the BBC.

He is now based in Las Vegas, doubtless believing that big pay nights at Caesar's Palace lie ahead. His problem is his age will dictate that he will meet himself coming back down from his perceived summit long before he gets there.